The most recent statements of Pope Francis regarding the Russian military aggression against Ukraine must be causing bigger and bigger confusion not only among the faithful of the Catholic Church, but also among members of the general public witnessing the tragedy of the Ukrainian civilian population massacred by Russian soldiers.
While addressing the participants of the Congress of the Pontifical Foundation Gravissimum Educationis two weeks ago, the Pope said:
We think of so many soldiers who are sent to the front, very young, Russian soldiers, poor things. Let’s think of so many young Ukrainian soldiers, let’s think of the inhabitants, the young people, boys, girls… […] A war always — always! — is the defeat of humanity, always. We, the educated, who work in education, are defeated by this war because on one hand, we are responsible. There are no just wars: they do not exist! [Non esistono le guerre giuste: non esistono!]
Moments later, an even more controversial point was made in the Pope’s speech:
The common good is connected with love and cannot be defended by military force [non può essere difeso con la forza militare]. a community or nation that asserts itself by force [che voglia affermarsi con la forza] does so to the detriment of other communities and becomes a fomenter of injustice, inequality and violence.
Despite the attempts made by a number of commentators to explain Francis’ intriguingly vague attitude towards the ongoing Ukrainian defensive war by his being constrained — as Head of the Vatican State — to adhere to the standards of the language of diplomacy, the Pope’s statements from the last dozen or so days seem to accurately reflect his views. The encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”, published by Francis two years ago, discusses issues directly related to the morality of war.
In the first part of the document, in the passage entitled “War and death penalty”, the pope deals with challenges posed by contemporary armed conflicts. The climax of this fragment of the encyclical is a thesis that radically questions the centuries-old achievements of Christian moral philosophers poring over the possibility of justifying military action:
We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a “just war”. Never again war!
Although this apparent rejection of the moral permissibility of military action of any kind — whether it is taken by particular states or by international coalitions — is phrased in the context of a number of accurate observations about the unprecedented potential of modern military technologies, the sharpness of the anti-war message presented in the document promoting the official teaching of the Church makes it necessary to ask a question about its elementary meaning, independent of possible general interpretations of Francis’ turn towards pacifism. A question of this kind — critically urgent in the light of daily reports about hundreds of innocent victims of the war in Ukraine — is, essentially, a question about the plausibility of ius contra bellum — apparently understood by Francis as the culmination of Christian philosophical reflection on the phenomenon of war, so far developed around the three fundamental principles justifying military action: ius ad bellum, ius in bello and ius post bellum.
Providing a “Polish commentary” on the anti-war statements made by the Pope seems necessary for several reasons. The first is the long tradition of Polish participation in the shaping of the legal and ethical foundations of Christian approach to the issue of war.
Its starting point, still not fully appreciated (especially in Western literature) is the contribution by Polish theologian and legal scholar Paweł Włodkowic (Paul Vladimiri) to the Council of Constance in 1416. Referencing the dramatic circumstances of the military conflict between the then Kingdom of Poland and the State of the Teutonic Order (The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem), the arguments of the representative of the Polish side in the parallel Polish-Teutonic legal and diplomatic dispute became a prefiguration of the theories of international law formulated later by leading European thinkers.
The universal significance of the manuscripts written by a canon of Płock over 600 years ago was emphasized in the second half of the twentieth century by Polish theorist of international law (who took up the subject of war in his own research) Ludwig Ehrlich, editor of The Selected Writings of Włodkowic, published in the 1960s. An important part of Włodkowic’s argument is devoted to highlighting the relationship between the moral assessment of individual involvement in an armed conflict and the righteousness of the cause one is fighting for. Categorical as this view was — and thus directly challenged in the contemporary (classic) version of just war theory, which promotes the principle of moral equality of all soldiers engaged in fighting on both sides of the frontline — it did take into account the complexity of situations of individuals subordinated to the decisions of political authorities:
only a subject is absolved from sin if he helps his lord: but here operates the link of obedience’ to which obedience he is obliged. It is otherwise [i.e. there is no absolution — A.C] if he were sure that the war is unjust, or believed so with probability. […] Nor is one excused by the fear of losing temporal things, because while fear attenuates guilt, yet it does not entirely exclude it. (P. Włodkowic, Saevientibus, w: Ludwik Ehrlich (ed.), Selected Works of Paweł Włodkowic, 1968)
Definitive solution to the dilemma confronted earlier by St. Augustine, the idea of individual responsibility for the killing of people fighting for a just cause (in most cases appropriately diminished in view of the probable limitations of knowledge possessed by the rank-and-file combatants participating in an unjust war), was proclaimed again one hundred years after the Polish-Teutonic dispute — in the context of the colonial conquest of South America — by the Spanish Dominican Francisco de Vitoria, viewed today as one of the pioneers of modern just war theory.
According to the contemporary version of war ethics, which is almost universally accepted today, the criteria determining the moral permissibility of starting a war (ius ad bellum) are independent of the criteria specifying morally permissible conduct of military operations (ius in bello). The most important premise legitimizing the resort to military force in international relations (the main rule of ius ad bellum) is the need to defend the political sovereignty and territorial integrity of a state in the event of it becoming the victim of armed aggression. In contrast to a defensive war, military aggression against an independent state is morally unacceptable. All the combatants, regardless of the moral qualification of the objectives pursued by the party to the conflict they represent, are obliged to observe the norms of ius in bello. The most important among the latter is the absolute prohibition of deliberate attacks on civilians.
The classic version of war ethics — underlying most of today’s disputes over military conflicts — has its origins in the doctrine of the Catholic Church. This fact is clearly recognized by the most important contemporary thinker dealing with the morality of war, Michael Walzer, the author of the book Just and Unjust Wars. published in 1977. As Walzer puts it:
Just war theory is a Catholic creation. Every civilization and every religion has rules about war, about when to fight and how to fight, but as far as I know, no-one else produced a systematic theory. The full development of the theory comes in the later Middle Ages, and the writers working on the theory are working in a disputed, sometimes amorphous, middle ground between Christian pacifism and holy war. The critique of pacifism does not play much of a part in 15th century writings, nor in Vladimiri’s texts, but the critique of holy war is a central issue. I once believed that the decisive repudiation of holy war came with the Spanish Dominicans in the 16th century, writing about and sometimes against the conquest of the Americas. I was wrong; the decisive repudiation came at least a century earlier, in opposition to the wars of the Teutonic Knights. Or maybe earlier than that: Vladimiri cites many writers (including, frequently, Pope Innocent IV) from the preceding centuries.” (M. Walzer, Just War and Holy War: Again, Ethical Perspectives, 2017; for Walzer’s view on the Russian invasion of Ukraine see “The Just War of the Ukrainians”, WSJ, March 25, 2022).
Such a thorough embedment of just war theory in the tradition of Catholic social thought — confirmed by a prominent liberal intellectual — is another reason why in a country whose cultural identity is largely shaped by Roman Catholicism, a radical change in the Church doctrine regarding the possibility of justifying defensive wars should not be left without a response.
The third, and probably the most important, reason why it is necessary to formulate a Polish response to Francis’s “pacifist revolution” is the specific experience of the Polish political community in the last 250 years, including — for obvious reasons — the challenges it is facing today. The history of Poland in this period, together with the history of the entire region of Central and Eastern Europe in the last hundred years, vividly exemplified in Poland’s history since World War I, can by no means be omitted in the debate over the Pope’s attempt to restore Christian pacifism (preached in antiquity by early Christian thinkers such as Tertullian and Lactantius). Francis’ rejection of the moral permissibility of military action should, on the one hand, be confronted with the hundred and fifty years of struggles first to defend, and then to restore, the Polish statehood barbarously annihilated by Poland’s neighbors in the years 1773-1795. As Norman Davies puts it:
The partitioning of Poland, effected in three stages in 1773, 1793, and 1795, was without precedent in modern European History. Although victorious powers habitually stripped their defeated rivals of territorial possessions and were not averse to dividing the spoils of India, America, or Africa, there is no other instance when they deliberately annihilated one of Europe’s historic states in cold blood. Poland was the victim of political vivisection — by mutilation, amputation, and in the end total dismemberment; and the only excuse given was that the patient had not been feeling well. (N. Davies, The God’s Playground. A History of Poland, 2005)
Importantly, a confrontation of this kind — at a slightly lower level of theological and moral generalizations, though (at least so far) in much more dramatic circumstances for the Poles — had its historical precedent in the dispute over Pope Gregory XVI’s encyclical “Cum primum”, condemning Poland’s November Uprising (a rebellion against the tzarist rule staged in 1830-31).
On the other hand, a question should be asked about the plausibility of the Pope’s proposal to completely abandon the use of military measures in defense of the common good, while taking into account the scale and scope of violence suffered in the first half of the twentieth century by tens of millions of inhabitants of the part of Europe designated a dozen years ago in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, written by prominent American historian Timothy Snyder. With an enormous part of this violence inflicted on the defenseless citizens of the attacked and defeated Polish state — the violence which had been meticulously planned, and then systematically perpetrated by the administrative institutions of the aggressor states — the Poles (including the Polish Catholics comprising 92% of Poland’s population) seem to be expressly entitled to inquire into the reasons why the Pope calls in question (applying a classic mode of consequentialist reasoning!) the possibility of moral justification of military defense undertaken by invaded states. The striking similarity of the course of the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the criminal activity of the German armed forces in Poland 83 years ago makes the attitude of unconditional pacifism promoted by Francis extremely difficult to defend.
Paradoxically, the apparent abandonment by the Pope of the centuries-old tradition of the Church teaching about the morality of armed conflicts has its counterpart in the position on the war in Ukraine represented by the intellectual and political elites of the most powerful European country — the country bearing direct responsibility for the unprovoked outbreak and the barbarous course of World War II. The arguments raised by the German government from the very beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine about the need to “de-escalate” the conflict, combined with its initial refusal to ship military equipment to Ukraine, the attempts to sabotage this type of aid provided to Ukrainians on the eve of the war by other countries, and the ultimate failure to fulfill its own commitments in that regard made in the subsequent phases of the war, were to be interpreted — in accordance with the clues furnished by German politicians — as a manifestation of Germany’s deep-seated opposition to the phenomenon of war as such.
With the (temporary) rejection of some deeply troubling suspicions (raised again and again by a number of experts) about the purely cynical reasons for the Germans distancing themselves from the staunch defense of Ukraine by its citizens, a plausible alternative to the unreliable official interpretation of their attitude towards the war may be revealed by taking into account the actual level of knowledge possessed by German society about the course of World War II. A surprisingly selective nature of this knowledge is demonstrated by the facts referenced by German historian Jochen Böhler — the author of ground-breaking analyses of war crimes perpetrated systematically by the German Wehrmacht during the war against Poland in 1939 — in his paper delivered during the conference marking the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland:
There is no study published in the German language on the participation of the German Luftwaffe in the war against Poland in 1939 and the intentional destruction of hundreds of Polish cities and towns carried out by the Nazi-German air force […] None of the historians has carefully considered the preparations for the war and the atmosphere in the German society in the weeks before and immediately after the attack; one won’t find any study of the role of the German minority in Poland at that time. […] We are faced with a surprising conclusion, namely that the war with Poland in 1939 and its significance for the entire WWII have been recognized in Germany as issues worth investigating only in recent years” (J. Bohler, Wojna z Polską w 1939 roku w historiografii zachodnioniemieckiej [The war with Poland in 1939 in West German historiography], w: Spojrzenie na Polski wrzesień 1939 roku [A perspective on the Polish September 1939], 2011).
Unfortunately, a very limited amount of knowledge about the atrocities experienced by the inhabitants of Central and Eastern Europe in 1939-1945, as well as the long years of the communist enslavement that followed the end of WWII in that region, can be attributed with a high degree of probability to the majority of Western societies.
In July 2016, Pope Francis made a momentous visit to the former German death camp in Auschwitz (the third pope to have done so). As emphasized by the world media reporting that event, a powerful testimony to its importance was the prayerful silence maintained by the Pope during the entire course of the visit. With the “mystery of evil” (misterium iniquitatis) manifesting itself so appallingly in places such as Auschwitz, a fully understandable plea made by Francis is that this evil should never happen again.
However, as news programs around the world have reminded their audiences in recent weeks, the evil of aggressive wars, and even the horrors of devastating wars — oftentimes only the first stage of systematic massacres of civilians perpetrated by the functionaries of the aggressor-states — haven’t been eliminated. The Christian just war theory is still the only coherent model of organized human action which can — with varying degrees of effectiveness — restrain war criminals. Giving testimony to the necessity of advocating just war as a morally commendable action remains a critical challenge — and not only for Polish historians and moral philosophers.
(Editor’s note: The Polish version of the article appeared on christianitas.org on March 22, 2022.)
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